Sociologist Jake Rosenfeld explains his research to The Boston Globe.
"In a new paper in the journal Social Science Research, Jake Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis, shows just how persistent that culture of secrecy remains. Using a 2010 survey of 2,746 employed Americans, he found that more than half of workers operate under tacit or official pay secrecy policies, including more than two-thirds of employees at private sector, nonunion companies. And this is despite the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which bars employers from retaliating against workers who discuss their pay. “Given that it’s been illegal for 80-plus years, that was a big surprise,” said Rosenfeld.
And these policies can have real consequences. Rosenfeld first became interested in pay secrecy when one of his students was fired from an off-campus part-time job for accidentally dropping her pay stub on the floor at work.
“I really was reluctant to tell her it was illegal,” Rosenfeld said, “given that the best thing she could hope for from the law was that, after the company dragged it out — likely involving lawyers and such — she would be rehired and offered back pay. That’s the stiffest penalty there is for violating this type of legislation.” That’s how employers get away with it, he added. “They can absorb the penalties pretty easily. And also, many businesses — and certainly many employees — have no idea that this practice is illegal. Americans in particular are very reluctant to discuss wages and salaries, and so when their boss tells them these things are off limits, it makes a certain natural sense to them.”
Aside from the occasional employee who finds herself in trouble with management, what is the effect of this secrecy? We need more research, but it’s safe to say that in many cases it obscures pay discrimination. That’s what happened to Lilly Ledbetter, a supervisor at a Goodyear plant in Alabama who learned after nearly 20 years that her male colleagues were making significantly more money than she was. Had someone not slipped her an anonymous note, Ledbetter would never have known. By the time she found out, according to the Supreme Court’s decision in her case against the company, it was too late for her to sue for discrimination."